Entreprenuers VS Great Ideas

By | Tuesday, August 03, 2010 1 comment
Tell me if you've seen this happen...

Somebody you've heard of in comics starts publicly talking about their Next Big ProjectTM. It's not something connected to a well-known, existing player like Marvel or DC or anything, though. Maybe it's a new website or a magazine or a self-published comic... whatever. They start talking it up, and pulling people in to help build/produce it. They probably don't have a huge budget, but it's a genuinely good idea so they're able to convince other folks to help for relatively minimal compensation. After all, it's a good -- maybe even great -- idea and worth pursuing in its own right.

Some time goes by, some buzz starts building and... things just peter out.

I'm not talking about a big launch with lots of money spent that's never recouped. Or the execution is just bad and they lose money hand over fist. I'm talking about things just never really materializing in the first place. Or if they do, it's clearly not to the full intentions of the original idea and it comes across as "Well, we promised you something, so here's what we've got; please don't get too mad at us."

You've seen this, right?

You ever wonder what happens to those projects? Obviously, something happened that's prevented them to really coming to fruition, but what?

About five or six years ago, I had this idea for a comic book database. Something where you could log in the issues in your collection (something not possible with the Grand Comic Database) without having to manually enter a bunch of data yourself. I had been using ComicBase for a few years at that point, but I saw a lot of limitations in it, partially stemming from the fact that it wasn't (at that point) online in any capacity and partially from the fact that the database structure wasn't conducive to cross-referencing anything. You couldn't easily look up, for example, all of the works by Barry Windsor-Smith because he might be listed under Barry Smith or Barry Windsor-Smith or simply Windsor-Smith. So my idea was to create a really great, cross-referential comic book database online. It would be maintained by a number of comic experts and all a user would have to do was select which issues were in their collection. And, as new issues came, they could simply tag which titles they subscribed to so they wouldn't even have to input things every Wednesday.

I got about a half-dozen guys on board conceptually. Between us, we had literally every Marvel comic published since the mid-1950s and almost everything from DC since the 1970s, PLUS reasonably sized collections of a slew of other publishers. It would take some time, but we could populate and maintain such a database. The next step, which took a little time, was tracking down a database programmer would would be able to work for a share of the profits. My startup capital was essentially nil, so I found someone who was interested in the project as a long-term proposition.

Income would be generated two ways. First, not surprisingly, by advertising. Secondly, while the database's contents would be freely viewed by anyone, being able to tag your own collection would require a subscription. I think I was kicking around something in the $12-$15 annually range. I had actually written up a formal business proposal and went through the calculations on realistic costs and income projections and whatnot. (I probably still have that document somewhere, but I'm not in the mood to dig for it just now.)

My competition was scarce. ComicBase had a good foothold in the market, but had some definite limitations. There was Grand Comic Database (and a few similar projects) that didn't allow users to log their own collections. And then there was this new thing that came online right around the time I was putting all this together. It was called ComicBookDB and was pretty much EXACTLY the type of database set-up I was thinking of. Turns out the guy behind it was a programmer himself who saw the same limitations and problems I had, so he started messing around for his own interest and threw the results online.

I was torn. On the one hand, this would be a direct competitor to what I was trying to put together. And he was GIVING it away for free. Anyone could sign up and start tracking their collection. But what I still thought worked in my favor was that he wasn't doing all that much inputting of data. He set the site up so that the users themselves would have to log each and every issue. "A-ha!" I thought, "This will never catch on. No one would be willing to log in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of issues for free!"

I went back to rounding up my partners -- at the time, I was still trying to get a solid commitment from a programmer, who was busy with several other immediately paying projects. A few months passed. I would periodically keep tabs on other sites to see about new developments and was soon shocked to discover something I hadn't considered viable: people were in fact loading issue information into ComicBookDB for free. Lots of issue information. Issues were going in by the hundreds; I want to say something like 400+ issues per day! Most of the low-hanging fruit (the Marvel and DC libraries) was done.

And he was giving the site away for free.

I just couldn't compete with that. Maybe if he had done a lousy job, or even if he did a sort-of-okay job, but he had put together everything I could think of for a good comic book database and then some. Any more efforts on my part would have been a waste of time. And I couldn't even get mad at him because he had done such a fine job with it! In fact, I not only started contributing issue information myself (I've remained in the top 12 most prolific contributors for several years, despite my contributions dropping off considerably since 2008) but I also provided some now-implemented layout suggestions to help improve functionality and usability.

Of course, that doesn't explain all the OTHER stalled-before-they-launched projects you may have heard about over the years. I'm sure financing was an issue in several cases, or other more immediately pressing matters for those involved coming to the forefront, or maybe just the fickleness of the originator. But I wonder sometimes about those projects. What happened to them? Why did they not even get a chance to sink or swim? What are the stories behind them?
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I had a conversation with a friend of mine after working on a fb app we created. We were talking about our next project. He had an old idea for site where local people review restaurants and you can read those reviews on a profile they create. I sent him the url to my Yelp account and he logged out of gchat.